I’ve been ruminating on this whole concept of “embracing the Satan” (which I posted a few days back) and, to quote The Big Lebowski, “New sh&* has come to light.”
To pick up where we left off (and do some review), the Gnostic temptation is not only to cleave good from evil and make them sourced by two distinct and separate entities, but to do the same in our souls, to identify the flesh with evil and then to do one of two things with the flesh: (1) reject it completely and claim to have conquered it and so triumph over sin (the holiness attitude, or currently certain psycho-therapist models) or (2) to indulge it completely and say “This is what I am! Accept me. Don’t judge me.” (existentialism; relativism; etc.)
Both ultimately deny the flesh, the first by rejecting it, the second by misunderstanding its redemption.
Let us look at the example of a person struggling with homosexuality. Let’s grant, for the sake of argument, the homosexual claim that they are born with “it,” meaning, from the moment they developed their sexual identity, they had same-sex attractions, desires, and whatnot. (My personal belief is that it’s a whole lot more complex, involving all sorts of causes, some curable, some not.)
Let’s also say he is a Christian. Oh oh. Problem. Doctrinally, he knows his flesh is the source of this ugliness and darkness in his life. So, what to do with the flesh?
The holiness tradition would say, “If you repent and believe, you are a new creation, therefore you will no longer have same-sex desire.” But as he tries to live this out, he comes to the sad conclusion that this desire is almost in his DNA somehow or another. It’s endemic to his flesh. It’s part of who he is. He doesn’t seem to be able to help it. (Check out Exodus International, a Christian counseling service once devoted to converting gays. They ceased operations in 2013, a representative saying “I am sorry for the pain and hurt many of you have experienced. I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn’t change. I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents.”)
So he proceeds to indulge it. He cannot be a good Christian, after all, no matter how hard he tries. What kind of God would deny HIM as he is in his very DNA? So he lives out his homosexual desires without guilt, indulging in them, all along claiming, “This is who I am!” And soon God evolves from being the God with a Law that is clearly against homosexuality to some sort of Nietzschean God who affirms your inner, authentic Self.
And then the fallout begins, of what studies show are typical of a gay lifestyle, to say nothing of the physical problems: depression, suicide, AIDS, and VD. Or, he attempts to raise a child in a way that studies are saying is less than best for a child – having two parents of the same sex. In other words, all the areas where the flesh is involved – regarding the body and regarding the natural begetting of children with two sexes – are defected areas. Put simply, the attempt to indulge the flesh ends up working against the flesh (which happens to be true in all flesh-indulging exercises).
The point being, both postures are flesh-denying, i.e., Gnostic.
Satan’s domain is the flesh. But by flesh we don’t mean the physical stuff that makes up my body. That stuff God created and everything God created is good. By flesh in this context we really mean the will, the human will. That’s Satan’s domain. Satan uses the will against God. You might say that this is what the will is, assertion against God. (Goodness, read Nietzsche and then read some of Malachi Martin’s accounts of demonic possession: “The will is the will is the will!” They’re the same.)
But then Satan also works in that darkness which came into existence with our rebellion against God. The shame, the desire to hide, the guilt, the depression, the accusations. His name means “Accuser” and that’s what he does. Because of our fall, our choosing against God, his work in our souls is now endemic to it. We are born with it. We are born with defected personalities. We are born with alcoholism, homosexuality, anger, and all sorts of perverted behaviors. These things become part of “who we are.”
Our prayer is for redemption. Our prayer as converted, baptized, repenting believers is to be saved from this wretchedness that we are. This is why we daily pray, “Deliver us from evil.”
But notice, we pray daily until we die this prayer. It is not totally fulfilled and answered until the day we die (and rise with new, redeemed bodies). So, we are “stuck” with our fallen bodies and its accusing voice of Satan until we die.
Now, this reality is tempered by something. As we learn in the Gospel, with the proclamation of forgiveness and the Gospel, Jesus sees Satan falling like lightning. Putting this incident together with other Scriptures (cf. Revelation 12: 10; Isaiah 14: 12; Luke 10: 18), this means that Christ’s death casts out “the Satan” and his prideful claims from our soul. No, we won’t have some Nietzschean will to power to “be who we are and you just accept it, dammit!” That’s Satantic pride that must be cast down from heaven with true faith. Furthermore, the guilt unto despair is cast out as well. Yes, I stand accused, but by Christ’s blood I am not damned.
And still, that voice remains. Still we must pray “deliver us from evil.” Still, Satan seems to have free reign to come up to the throne room and brag to God how he can go hither and thither (Job 1).
So what gives?
Again, in the case of Job, Jesus, and St. Paul, God allowed “the Satan” to work his wiles in the lives of each of these. In the case of Job, God was managing the whole thing, even if he was not authoring the evil. He allowed Satan to do what he did. In Jesus’ case, God immediately drove Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil for forty days. Again, God was managing the affair. Finally, in St. Paul’s case, a thorn in the flesh “was given” to him (by whom?), and three times he begged God to take it away, but God said “My grace is sufficient for you.”
So, in all cases, these three servants of God received what the Lord had for them, endured their crosses for the time God had allotted, and then awaited from the Lord “great and abundant mercy.” And as we learn, in each case, that’s exactly what happened. Each was glorified.
Now, in the past two days I’ve been teaching this concept first to the students in my campus ministry, and second to my ladies Tuesday morning Bible Study. As we were studying Satan, we came upon one of the most unusual accounts of Satan in the Bible. It’s from I Chronicles 21: 1. It goes like this:
“Now Satan stood up against Israel, and moved David to number Israel.” (Memo to church growth crowd: “Ahem!!!!”)
What’s extremely interesting about this text is that it is the same story brought up in the II Samuel 24: 1:
“Again the anger of the LORD was aroused against Israel, and He moved David against them to say, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah.’”
This is quite a textual variant! Is it the Lord or is it Satan who moved David to number Israel? Liberals have fun with this – saying it proves how unreliable the Bible is – and conservatives twist themselves in knots to explain it.
I think the answer is real simple: this is describing God’s proper vs. alien work. This was distinction Martin Luther made and it’s one of the most brilliant distinctions ever made in theology, which explains so much. God’s proper work is salvation, love, mercy, and life. God’s alien work is anger, judgment, wrath, damnation, and taking away life. Put in simple terms, God’s alien work is a father spanking his child and saying, “I don’t want to have to do this! This hurts me more than it hurts you!” His proper work is a father playing with his child, holding her in his arms, kissing her, etc.
On these terms, Satan is God’s alien work! I’m not going to push this, or say that Satan is not fully an entity in his own right, or that he is an aspect of God in any way. Rather, we might say, Satan is managed by God as part of His alien work. That’s why there’s no real distinction between “the anger of God was aroused” and “Now Satan stood up against Israel.” It’s essentially the same thing!
Ok, now this brings us to today, again. As we go through the course of the day, we live in the world. We live with our fallen flesh. Both of these areas are areas where the devil “reigns,” as Jesus said, the devil is “this world’s prince,” or as St. Paul called him, the prince of the power of the air. But in the final analysis – again, because we’re not Gnostics so we don’t separate God from His creation – the devil’s reign in this world is under God’s management. His reign is a working out of God’s alien nature, His wrath against us. (Read Romans 1-2 about the revelation of God’s wrath; it’s some of the most accusatory reading in the Bible.)
In the end, yes, Christ will finally triumph over the devil’s reign and supplant him, but until that day, we still struggle under the burdens of the fall. We “take up our cross daily” and follow Christ. What is our cross? It’s our flesh! It’s life in this world! It’s a life in this world neither rejecting the flesh as evil nor indulging it as our Self-definition. It’s our flesh placed with Christ on the cross, in a constant state of humility, repentance, and adherence to Christ by faith, no matter what that brings.
Yes, no matter what that brings!
So for one, it might mean an aspect of their personality, like anger, or shyness, or whatever. This personality trait constantly brings darkness, or sadness, or depression, or whatever. “The Satan” will needle at this trait and use it to cause Self-accusation. Meanwhile, the Gnostic in us wants to separate that flesh from us and be something different, a truer Self, a liberated Self. But to take up the cross is to embrace who we are in our entirety – sins and all – and humbly lay it before the Lord. Embrace even the voice of Satan along with that flesh, because the voice becomes muted in Christ’s blood.
For Job, it meant losing his entire family, crops, wealth, and health, even though he was a good person, a Christlike person (who interceded and offered sacrifices for his children). His friends, ironically, assumed a satanic-like role and began accusing him of some wrongdoing. He remained faithful, but when he questioned God, God said, in essence, you cannot have any idea what I am doing. Taking up the cross means trusting that God knows what He’s doing when “the Satan” is sent to torment us.
For St. Paul, it meant a messenger of Satan tormenting him. Was this physical? Spiritual? Who knows. The point is, God allowed it. Paul wished it would go away, but God allowed it to keep him humble. St. Paul who said “wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” also said that God works all things for the good, yes, even the deadness of our bodies and our fleshly torments.
For a Christian who struggles with homosexuality, it means they will struggle with this sin as long as they live. This sin will keep them humble and affixed on God’s grace. It may cause problems over and over again. But to take up the cross is to embrace this fleshly, psychological mess, and lay it before the Lord in humility and faith, knowing that the Lord who gives the petition, “lead us not into temptation” will answer this request one day. And why did “God create me this way”? If we answer with Job, it’s “Who knows,” just bless the name of the Lord and trust his wisdom. If we answer with St. Paul, it’s “My grace is sufficient for you, but all things work together for good.” If we answer with Jesus, it’s “Take up your cross and come with me for forty days. It is the time allotted for fasting, temptation, and struggle, but I have won the victory.”
We all live daily in the realm where “the Satan” does his work. It could be the darkness of a fallen world, a fallen psyche, or a fallen spirit, a voice in us that accuses us and fills us with dark thoughts. Or, it could be the deafening silence itself. Where is God? The silence itself is one of Satan’s most clever ploys. How accusatory is it! Why is God not answering me? It must be because of some sin, some defect, right?
This is why we don’t go looking around for God in this world, or in our conscience, or in our hearts, or in our minds, or in anything outside of those places where He has promised to be in His proper work: the Word and Sacrament. In the Sacrament we find no accusation, we find no silence, and we find no doubts. We hear only, “My blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.” That is God’s true Word, spoken by His true, called modern day prophets, the ministers, who were put there to say exactly those words.
That is the word that finally puts “the Satan” to flight, that gives our flesh a reprieve – if even for a moment before the day resumes, we leave the heavenly realms, and we reenter the world – but a reprieve that is a foretaste of the answer to our petition, “deliver us from evil.